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Review of 'The Romans and Their World,' by Brian Campbell

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The Romans and Their World A Short Introduction, by  Brian Campbell

The Romans and Their World A Short Introduction, by Brian Campbell;ISBN:9780300117950; Dimensions: 288 pages: 234 x 156 x 32mm; Illustrations: 42 black-&-white illustrations + 10 maps, 5 plans

Yale University Press

The Romans and their World: A Short Introduction provides a lively, thorough look at Roman history from its legendary founding (c. 753 B.C.) to the Fall of Rome and deposing of Emperor Romulus Augustulus in A.D. 476. It is probably most suited to students of a college level introductory Roman history class and to all those who want to learn more about Roman history.

Campbell covers a millennium of Roman history in a compact 248 pages (compare with Edward Gibbon's 6-volume The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), with an additional thirty pages of index and supplemental reading. That is an impressive feat, and Campbell is well aware of the challenge, as he notes in a preface explaining the lack of footnotes. Besides footnotes, you will not find notes at the ends of the chapters, although the supplementary section, at the end of the book, holds hefty lists of chapter specific suggested readings. In addition to the supplemental data, Campbell sprinkles the text with ample, relevant passages from the ancient sources in English translation. The absence of footnotes and relegation of the bibliography to the end let the writing flow smoothly and clearly.

Using his professional and professorial experience, Campbell makes wise judgment calls. He rarely mentions that there are dissenting opinions, although the reader should be aware that there are controversies over many theories and so-called facts about ancient history. For example, instead of bogging down the whirlwind historical tour with a discussion of the exact status of Emperor Constantine I's future sainted mother, Helena, Campbell simply calls her infant (sc. Constantine) a love child.

Realizing how short the work is, I kept expecting Campbell to curtail important aspects of Rome's history. Instead, not only does he go through the basic wars, personalities, and other events, but he illuminates murky eras -- like the age of chaos when almost every emperor met a violent end. That period, which Campbell self-consciously and fittingly renders confusing, and the development of Roman interest in the Greek territories are two of the most valuable sections.

There are many exceptional sections and themes. Campbell traces the imperial period history of the role of the praetorian prefect, from 2 B.C., when he was a deputy bodyguard commander under Emperor Augustus, to A.D. 312 (the year of Constantine's famous in hoc signo vinces Milvian Bridge Battle), when Constantine abolished the praetorian guard, but kept the prefecture, a senior administrative role reserved for the top members of the equestrian order. The prefect would become a member of the Roman senate upon his retirement.

Campbell explains the Roman economy's basic coinage, income sources and expenses, and, surprisingly, in one of the few places where he does discuss dissenting opinions, he includes a look at the "primitivist" perspective on ancient economics -- a position that denies the high level of Roman urbanization to be an indicator of a developed economy -- and the "modernist" perspective, which holds trade and commerce were well understood by Roman upper classes and vital to the social and political structures of Rome.

Since Campbell is a military historian of ancient Rome, the reader should not be surprised by the detailed treatment of the life of a soldier, including pay levels and entitlements, military tactics, and a glance at our ignorance of Roman imperial foreign policy.

As is fitting an introductory work on Rome, Campbell pays the requisite attention to Roman families: marriage, slavery, exposure, and adultery; religion, especially during the Republican period, and the rise of Christianity and persecutions of Christians.

Two out of several exceptional sections of The Romans and their World: A Short Introduction are those on transitional periods like that of the Gracchi, during the Republic, and during the imperial period, the years 235-284, the time from the death of Severus Alexander to the foundation of the Tetrarchy (the period leading from the Principate to the Dominate).

The charts and maps are useful, the plates worth studying, and the suggested readings inspiring.

I do not recommend this book for a complete novice: it helps to know what comes next, the historical spoilers, so to speak; however, if you are familiar with the major names and eras, it should prove enlightening.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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